I’m telling you now…if you’re a baseball fan and your attitude about professional baseball and professional baseball players has been jaded by steroids, salaries and egos, you need to put this event on your “to do” list.
In my nearly 40 years as an adult I’ve been to nearly every kind of baseball event, fundraiser, and venue you can think of.
I’ve been to Cooperstown…twice.
I’ve been to roasts and stags…twice times ten.
I’ve been to spring training, inside looking out and outside looking in.
I’ve gone in the name of both fan and media.
And I admit. For the past 25 years there’s one change about baseball…professional baseball…that’s absolutely contrary to the spirit of human appreciation.
You just don’t walk up to major league players anymore, stick out your hand, and say, “Hi, I’m John Doe and I really appreciate seeing you play. Could we talk for a few minutes? I’d like to ask you a few things?”
I suppose you could do that if you could get close enough to ask, but you probably won’t like the response.
Players have become inaccessible, for reasons of security, self-importance, ego, and yes…money. If you want an autograph you’re likely gonna’ pay for it, especially if you’re old enough to shave.
But on the other hand, never…never in those 40 years have I been treated to a better baseball event than the annual Portsmouth, Ohio Murals Baseball Banquet, held Wednesday night the city’s downtown civic center to benefit the maintenance of the mural artwork depicting the region’s history that adorns the city’s river flood walls.
Ironically, the rich tapestry of Scioto County and the immediate area includes baseball, and an unlikely number of former major league personalities from that community, including former Pirates slugger Al Oliver, former Phillies and Twins outfielder Larry Hisle, former Reds pitcher Don Gullett, Walt Terrill of the Detroit Tigers, and major league umpires Terry Craft, Charlie Reliford and Greg Gibson.
They all showed up, plus a host of lesser-known names came to pay tribute to their roots and the fans that still affectionately claim them as their own, long after their playing days are over.
“If you like Baptists and baseball this is the place to be tonight,” laughed one event volunteer.
And indeed, nearly all of the dignitaries who spoke gave credit to the core values of faith and family, values they received growing up in the Portsmouth community.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I am what I am today because of the love and support I received from my father and mother…from the people of Portsmouth who encouraged me growing up,” said Hisle, who broke in with the Phillies in 1969.
Al Oliver gave the evening’s invocation, which included these words: “Father God, we give you thanks for this community and for bringing us together this evening in the name of baseball and service to each other.”
And that set the tone of the evening…professionals revered for their exploits in baseball treating the fans who admire them like human beings, people with human emotions and affection for baseball and baseball players.
Autographs and photos were given freely. Conversations were easy and genuine. It was down home…and it was magnificent!
If only that experience could be more available to fans of the game in parks around the country.
“Why do you think I’ve continued to live in Portsmouth all these years?” said Al Oliver, who’s made Portsmouth his post-baseball priority, to give something back, for the past 25 years.
“This is genuine. These are people who gave us the right values growing up, and took the time to help kids like me realize their potential…my parents, my coaches, and the people who came to see me play high school baseball.
“It goes way back to people with local roots, like Branch Rickey, who is responsible especially for myself and Larry Hisle, being born and raised here, to have an opportunity to play major league baseball,” he added. “As strange as it seems, it took someone from Southern Ohio to make that move while others before, for whatever reason, had a problem with race. But, thanks be to God that he was a Christian man and believed in equality.”
And indeed, that love for baseball and baseball people extends to those well beyond the city limits and borders of Scioto County.
“There simply is no better baseball writer in America than our own Hal McCoy,” said program emcee Bill Warnock. “And we’re honored to have him here again with us this evening, a true Hall of Famer.”
“I’ve never been treated better than I am here,” said “our” own McCoy, who since leaving as a beat writer for the Dayton Daily News has continued to post for that paper, Fox Sports Ohio, and his weekly work for Press Pros Magazine. “I come every year and I’ll continue to come as long as I can.”
I made the trip at Hal’s invitation, along with Englewood friends, Murray Greenberg and Jeff Gordon.
“You won’t believe what you’re going to see,” he said.
And indeed, he was right. A local funeral director from Lucasville, William McKinley, hosted our table, insisting that Hal be his personal guest. He has for years, and vowed that he would for as long as there was good to be done for the people of Scioto County.
Person after person came by to say hello to Hal, to pose for photos, for an autograph…and much to his delight. To borrow Oliver’s words, there is no one more “genuine” in his affection for those who love baseball than Hal McCoy.
“Why not,” he joked. “Did you hear the nice things they said about my work?”
There were raffles, silent auctions of cherished Reds items and other baseball memorabilia, and a sold out hall for dinner and the evening’s program, all of which raised approximately $20,000 to support maintenance on the city’s signature flood wall murals.
Keynote speaker and major league umpire Greg Gibson, from nearby Ashland, Kentucky, more than gave them what they wanted to hear.
“I became a fan of baseball during Game 6 of the 1976 World Series,” he said. “And, the day that my favorite Reds player, Don Gullett, signed a Bible for me. I think I was 8 years old, and I knew then that I wanted to be in baseball and be that kind of influence to others with my life.”
From the back you could hear a few “Amens”, and in unison the room rose to show its appreciation for his attaining those goals at the conclusion of his talk.
On a napkin in front of me I jotted this thought, as people stopped by each of the evening’s baseball dignitaries to extend their appreciation and best wishes before leaving for home…Baseball of the people, and for the people.
I don’t think Mr. Lincoln would have minded.
From what I heard Wednesday about Branch Rickey, I know he would have approved.
And Al Oliver? It’s what’s kept him in at home in Portsmouth…for all these years!